Lessons from a Screwdriver
Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, George Petersen
When I was a high school kid back in the Paleolithic 1960s era, I wanted to learn electronics. I experimented a lot (destroying a few radios along the way), assembled Heath and Knight kits, and regularly built DIY projects featured in Radio-Electronics and Popular Electronics magazines. In-between splattering solder on my thumb and digging into these articles to figure out how to adapt the circuits to 220V/50 Hz operation (I was living in Europe at the time), I couldn't help but notice some ads featuring a stern-faced guy who said, “Get more education or get out of electronics!”
The pitch was to promote a correspondence school's learn-at-home electronics course. These days I can't even recall which school it was from, but that man's message was clear and very relevant, especially in the field of systems contracting. Products, interfacing, and installations today are more complex than ever, and keeping up with changing technologies — as well as a maze of changing standards, specs, and regulations — requires continuing education. Meanwhile, the demand for skilled workers in our industry will continue to rise.
However, textbook and in-class training alone aren't enough — actual hands-on experience can make all the difference in the world. For example, changing a diaphragm on a high-frequency compression driver isn't exactly rocket science. All you have to do is select the right replacement part (with the proper impedance), remove a few screws, match the polarity of the wires, plop the new one into place, and tighten things down.
However, there's one detail that shouldn't be overlooked: the procedure should be done with a nonferrous screwdriver. Unless you're using a brass or an aluminum screwdriver, the powerful gauss field of the driver's magnetic structure will yank the tool out of your grasp, attracting it into the center of the driver, instantly shredding the fragile, and very expensive, diaphragm. When it happens in the real-life, nontextbook world, it's not a pretty sight and hardly a lesson that's soon forgotten.
The need for combining practical experience with education on fundamentals is real indeed, and earlier this year, NSCA announced the formation of a much-needed apprenticeship program. Set to launch in September of this year and approved by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, this NSCA program provides new hires with the opportunity to earn while they learn. Similar approaches by groups such as the Massachusetts Systems Contractors Association are already underway, and it's a good example for the entire industry to follow.
In addition to the proposed apprenticeships, another positive step in the right direction is NSCA's announcement of certification programs for electronic systems technicians (ESTs) and electronic systems integrators (ESIs). Certified designations will be available for beginning technicians and management-level integrators after meeting a series of work elements and classroom hours and passing exams that will be available in spring 2004. The certified C-EST status is based on 4,000 hours of training or two year's experience. From there a candidate can move on to registered R-ESI status, requiring an additional 120 hours of electives, which can include other association's existing certifications.
Why certification? Besides setting industry-wide standards for employee performance and expertise, the systems contracting industry at large needs to move forward to keep pace with a changing world. The old days of vague installation specifications such as “neat and workmanlike manner” are over. As the construction industry demands increasingly more detailed specs — particularly for incorporating systems technologies into commercial building projects — the need for trained employees is greater than ever, and certification makes good sense.
For me that decades-old message from the mean-looking guy in that electronics magazine still holds true. Better training will provide the skilled workforce that the industry requires to meet the needs of tomorrow, while certification standards will raise the bar of professionalism for systems contractors everywhere. It's a goal we can all be proud of.
George Petersen is senior consulting editor of S&VC.